Can Makeup be a Form of Self-Expression?
I was halfway through my makeup routine one day when I realized that my hands always naturally gravitate toward the same products in my makeup bag and my brain does not fight them. For the past few months, I’ve generally stuck to the same beauty routine with a few variations here and there, toning it up or down depending on if I had a particular amount of energy to spend on my face that day. When I thought about the previous semester, I realized I’d been wearing at least some amount of makeup on days when I was more energized, social, and outgoing. I don’t mind leaving the house with a fresh face, but I’m more likely to take the time to indulge in an entire beauty routine when I wake up in a good mood.
Lately, my routine had come to feel boring; it was making me feel uninspired to do my makeup. I would use the same products as a matter of routine, selecting products and looks that I knew would look good rather than taking the risk of experimenting with different styles. So to help me out of my habit, I reached out to five college students to talk about how their opinions of beauty have evolved over the years, and how they choose to express themselves through their makeup.
Abigail Cherubin (she/her)
Favorite Beauty Product: Glossier Stretch Concealer
Beauty Inspiration: Solange
Until she got to high school, Abigail Cherubin was one of the only Black girls in her class and thought that to be beautiful was to have long hair and a pale complexion. “Growing up, my definition of beauty was defined by the spaces I found myself in. As I grew older, becoming more intentional with choosing media that reflected my beauty and complexity, I realized that instead of redefining beauty, I wanted to undefine it,” Abigail answered. “To me, beauty is extremely personal and is all about individuality.”
Like many other Black girls that were unrepresented in the beauty industry before Fenty Beauty, Abigail found herself having to purchase two shades of foundation to mix together, because no other shade would match her undertone. She first learned about beauty through the Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty book, her first introduction to beauty being holistic rather than simply about outward appearance.
When it comes to skincare, Abigail gravitates toward grapeseed, avocado, and tea tree oils. “The end goal is always dewy, glowy skin,” she affirmed. Her makeup routine, though, depends on how she feels like expressing herself that day, whether it’s simply with concealer and mascara or colorful eyeliner on her face. She credits Solange as being her inspiration for self-expression. “Her artistic, lax approach to makeup is one I strive to emulate.”
Makeup and beauty, for Abigail, is about more than expensive products or routines. “Beauty is a medium I use to communicate my imagination, personality, and inner truth. It’s empowered me to be bold and unapologetic in doing so.”
Ken Cavanaugh (they/she/he)
Ken Cavanaugh doesn’t remember what experience first sparked their interest in beauty, but they know it occurred during their freshman year of college. “My relationship with makeup has developed alongside my experience of gender nonconformity,” Ken said. “As I’ve named and come to better understand feelings of dysphoria from my childhood and adolescence, makeup has been an important part of feeling through and negotiating new possibilities for self-expression.”
Now, Ken believes beauty is about what you express and how you connect with those around you. “As someone with self-confidence issues that has dealt with a lot of dysphoria and dysmorphia, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about beauty and ugliness in the context of self-presentation and physical appearance,” Ken revealed. “For me, beauty is about self-affirmation, exploration, and joy. It’s about not taking yourself too seriously and finding ways to feel in touch with yourself and the people around you.”
Part of not taking yourself too seriously, for Ken, is not having a routine and taking it day by day instead. While there are days that Ken prefers a quick rinse and moisturizer, there are some when Ken wants a specific look. “On those days, I honestly just spread my makeup out on the counter and go where the wind takes me. There’s not much organization or forethought to it, but I think that keeps things pretty exciting.”
Maeve Sullivan (she/they)
“I used to think someone beautiful was someone who conformed to or upheld the standards of beauty we tend to hold – thin, feminine, blonde, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with being those things, as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized more and more that beauty can mean something different for everyone,” Maeve said. Beauty, which they once thought of as being surface-level, is now more so about confidence in yourself and your image. It’s about inner beauty more than it is outward.
“I would say I use makeup as an accessory to whatever I’m wearing or feeling. On days [when] I’m feeling more feminine, I’ll wear a lot of blush and bright colors, whereas other days I’ll wear no makeup or keep it minimal when I feel more on the masculine side,” Maeve explained. “That’s just a personal preference – being masculine and wearing a bunch of glitter or color is totally awesome as well!”
In the morning, Maeve uses micellar water, rose witch hazel, moisturizer, and sunscreen. At night, they repeat the routine but use a cleanser after removing their makeup. Maeve’s makeup itself varies day to day and depends on how they want to express themselves, but they love using Fenty Beauty Gloss Bomb, Karity vegan palette, Milk Makeup tattoo stamps, and Glossier Boy Brow in their routine. Maeve likes to experiment with asymmetry and gets inspiration from their wardrobe or color combinations they see throughout the day.
“On days [when] I’m energetic and happy, you can definitely see that with my makeup. Other times it’s clear I’m stressed out because I’ve gone super simple or worn no makeup those days. On the other hand, sometimes I wear a look that doesn’t signify anything. I just like how it looks!” Maeve mentioned.
Raven Yamamoto (they/them)
Raven Yamamoto’s beauty inspirations all happen to be drag artists. They love that drag artists are willing to stand out, and that they’re unafraid to share their art with the world. Mostly, they love what drag artists exemplify: “Watching people like Yvie Oddly and Sasha Velour transform themselves into their drag personas really showed me the power of makeup and how you can use it to show the world a different side of yourself while still remaining true to who you are deep down.”
Raven knows that beauty is self-love and that insecurities are inevitable but they are also okay. They note a difference between pretty and beautiful, between what’s conventionally attractive and what is within you. When Raven is wearing barely any makeup, it means she’s probably feeling uninspired. “If I don’t have any on, I’m probably really stressed out or too busy to think about putting any on. I don’t feel like myself when I don’t have makeup on, so it typically isn’t a great sign.”
In the mornings, Raven alternates between the Neutrogena pink grapefruit oil-free face wash or the Clean and Clear morning burst face wash. She likes products that can exfoliate and deep clean at the same time. For moisturizer, she opts for The Body Shop’s Vitamin C Glow Boosting Moisturizer, then uses Bliss’ hydration salvation, both of which give her a natural, dewy base for her makeup. Her usual routine includes her eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, a bold lip, colored freckles, highlighter, and different face decorations depending on her mood. She likes to wear colors when she’s in a good mood – “When I’m excited, I like to look exciting!” – and sometimes wears color contacts and Milk Makeup Tattoo Stamps.
Sofia Meisburger (she/her)
Favorite Products: Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector Pressed Highlighter in Opal, NYX Epic Ink Liner, Pixi Beauty Hydrating Milky Mist
Sofia Meisburger spent two decades avoiding mirrors. For much of her life growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, she couldn’t escape the Western ideals of beauty perpetuated by the magazines, websites, or advertisements she came across. Drugstores only sold foundations and BB creams that advertised “whitening effects” or featured a plastic-looking, light-skinned model. The implications of the conventional standard of beauty began to impact Sofia’s health.
“In pursuit of the ‘right’ definition of beauty -- and one that was congruent with the seemingly irregular, deviant way my skin and eyes and hair looked -- I suffered from a number of ED’s and manic-depressive episodes that were only further encouraged by the dangerously romantic culture towards mental illness that was synonymous with Tumblr in 2013 and 2014,” Sofia said. It wasn’t until she fully accepted herself, and the way that she would likely look for the rest of her life, that she felt liberated.
“Beauty for my high school self meant heavy eyeliner, black lipstick, and literally nothing else – really embarrassing, I know. My face and eyebrows would remain untouched until a brief reactionary period at 17 when I started becoming really invested in makeup and beauty gurus on YouTube,” she said. “I dyed my hair pink and started aggressively embracing a type of beautiful that was less binary and more multi-faceted.”
Sofia’s go-to routine begins with the Pixi Hydrating Milky Mist for an even spread of moisture and an easy primer for foundation. She’s been using the Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Foundation since it was released, but she opts for Stila’s Aqua Glow Serum Foundation for lighter coverage and maximum glow. “For brows, Anastasia’s brow pomade is a classic that I def stan for life, and their blush trios are also crazy pigmented. I don’t always do a full makeup look every day, but it’s pretty rare for me not to at least have eyeliner on. I’ve been doing very full, very dramatic winged eyeliner since I was 15, and I am still that angsty emo bitch!” Sofia explained. For eyeliner, she loves using Nyx’s Epic Ink Liner and for lip color, she goes for nude orange or straight black and Nyx’s Suede Matte liquid lip.
“I don’t think you need a particular reason to wear makeup in the same way traditional art doesn’t really need justification. That would be like asking art to be practical, or useful,” Sofia said.
Makeup doesn’t always have to serve a purpose – it’s okay for it to be fun without being functional. Western beauty standards are a force felt across the world but beauty routines should be a space for experimentation and creativity, rather than a space for confusion about why we might not resemble the person in the advertisement.